Guide to the 2016 Republican Presidential Primaries

Some primaries matter more than others. Here is a look at the most important Republican contests.

Sign outside a polling place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, November 3, 2009
Sign outside a polling place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, November 3, 2009 (Steven Depolo)

The first votes in America’s presidential primaries will be cast next month. Iowa traditionally kicks off the months-long nominating contest. New Hampshire follows a week later.

On the Democratic side, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is almost certain to win the nomination. The primaries seem little more than a formality at this point.

On the Republican side, however, there is no presumptive nominee. “The” party — understood as the broad network of donors, elected and party officials and other influencers who tend to rally around a single candidate early in the contest — has yet to make up its mind. It now seems likely that they will wait until after the first voting contests to decide who stands the best chance of defeating Clinton in November.

So the primaries matter, but they don’t matter equally. Some states are more representative of the national electorate than others. Those are the ones that matter the most to the party insiders who pick the nominee.

It’s also not simply a matter of who wins the most votes per state. Caucuses and primaries don’t actually elect candidates; they appoint delegates who go on to nominate the presidential candidate at a convention in July. The way delegates are selected differs per state and this usually benefits the establishment favorite.

Let’s look at the most important contests.

February 1: Iowa

Iowa’s heavy concentration of evangelics distorts its caucuses in favor of Christian conservatives who stand little chance of winning a national election. Not since 2004, when George W. Bush ran unopposed for a second term, have Republican voters in Iowa thrown their support behind the party’s eventual nominee.

The winner in Iowa can expect to do well in other states that are heavily religious. After he narrowly beat Mitt Romney there in 2012, Rick Santorum, a fire-and-brimstone conservative from Pennsylvania, went on to win in Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

It’s not hard to imagine Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, following in Santorum’s footsteps.

But Santorum only got 20 percent of the votes in the end and 11 percent of the delegates. Cruz may not fare much better.

February 9: New Hampshire

New Hampshire has a better record of selecting winners, but it’s not very representative of either the national Republican or the general-election electorate either.

The state is more libertarian than most. Small-government conservatives tend to do better there than the religious types. So do moderate, blue-state Republicans. It’s where John McCain — then considered a maverick — started his victory march in 2008. Romney won the state easily in 2012. Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman, came in second that year with nearly a quarter of the votes.

This time around, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both from Florida, as well as Ohio’s John Kasich are counting on a first victory in New Hampshire.

Paul’s son, Rand, will also hope for a strong showing in the state to keep his presidential flame burning.

February 20: South Carolina

The third state in line is more representative of the Republican electorate at large. Every faction is represented in South Carolina: It has rural conservatives upstate with reactionary views on social issues and a deep mistrust of big-government Democrats; fiscal conservatives in the retail- and tourism-dominated south who align with the party’s pro-business wing; and a large military and ex-military community with robust views on defense.

Hence up to 2012, South Carolina had a perfect record of picking Republican winners. Only that year, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a native of neighboring Georgia, surprisingly beat Romney with 40 percent of the votes.

This time around, the party establishment is hoping South Carolina will return to form and act as a “firewall” to block insurgent candidates like Donald Trump.

February 23: Nevada

Coming only three days after the South Carolina primary, Nevada’s caucuses are the least predictable.

Romney won them in both 2008 and 2012, but only 7 percent of Republican voters showed up the last time.

Polling is unreliable, because no one knows how many voters will turn out this year.

Nevada has a strong libertarian streak outside Las Vegas — and committed Paul supporters could be more likely to vote. Las Vegas and its suburbs have a large Hispanic population, which might not bode well for nativists like Trump. But then, Hispanics are more likely to vote Democratic anyway.

With only thirty delegates at stake and a history of such low turnout, it may not really matter who wins Nevada for the final delegate count. But the state is increasingly seen as a bellwether for the entire Western United States. Whoever wins in Nevada may claim to be a viable candidate for the general election.

March 1: Super Tuesday

Twelve states vote this day, most of them in the South: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming. A combined 624 delegates are at stake, a quarter of the total. Texas, with 155 delegates, is by far the biggest prize. Cruz, who represents Texas in the United States Senate, must do well in his own state to remain competitive.

If an establishment favorite like Bush or Rubio is otherwise ahead at this point, the overrepresentation of Southern states on Super Tuesday will almost certainly infuse doubts about their prospects into the race. A social conservative who can also tap into the anti-government Tea Party movement, like Cruz, will probably do well. But the rest of March looks better for candidates who actually stand a chance of winning the general election.

Rest of March

Seventeen more states and territories vote in March with 791 delegates at stake, a third of the total.

Florida is the biggest prize with 99 delegates. Either Bush, the state’s former governor, or Rubio, one of its two senators, should win there.

Ohio, with 66 delegates, is another important state. If often helps decide the outcome of the general election. Kasich, the state’s incumbent governor, should stand a good chance of winning. But if he hasn’t done well in New Hampshire, he might have dropped out at this point already.

April

The states that vote in the primaries in April mostly vote Democratic in the general election: Connecticut, Maryland, New York. If there is no winner at this point, the April contests could tilt the balance in favor of a relative moderate.

As the Atlantic Sentinel has reported, these blue states also have an outsized influence in the nominating contest. Not only because they are among the most heavily-populated and hence have a lot of delegates (309 are at stake in April); Republican Party rules give an advantage to districts that would almost certainly vote Democratic in the general election.

May-June

If there is still no candidate by May, a few remaining big states could cast the deciding vote. Indiana, a no-nonsense red state, will have 57 delegates to give. California, the largest state in the country and one of the most liberal, will have 172. And New Jersey, another blue state but one with a Republican governor, Chris Christie — himself a presidential candidate — will have 51.

It seems unlikely the race will remain competitive going into the summer. By the end of May 2012, all candidates but Romney had suspended their campaigns already.

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